This story first appeared at ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
From the movie theater to the shopping mall, inside a church and a synagogue, through the grocery aisle and into the classroom, gun violence has invaded every corner of American life. It is a social epidemic no vaccine can stem, a crisis with no apparent end. Visual evidence of the carnage spills with numbing frequency onto TV shows and floods the internet. Each new shooting brings the lists of loved ones lost, the galleries of their smiling photos and the videos of the police response. And each mass shooting brings another surge of national outrage.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guns became the leading killer of children in 2020, overtaking car crashes, drug overdoses and disease for the first time in the nation’s history. Yet as the one-year anniversary of the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, passes, nagging questions loom.
Why haven’t lawmakers acted with forceful correctives? What will it take to regain a sense of safety? When will change happen? And how, exactly, did America end up here?
Ryan Busse, former executive at Kimber America, a major gun manufacturer, recently shared his thoughts on these questions with ProPublica. He was vice president of sales at Kimber America from 1995 to 2020 but broke with the industry and has become a gun safety advocate. He testified about mass shootings and irresponsible marketing last July in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and authored the book “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry That Radicalized America.”
In June 2021, he became a senior adviser for Giffords, a gun violence prevention group led by Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman gravely injured in 2011 during a mass shooting. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Where are we, as a nation, on guns? And where do you think we need to go?
I think we might be on the precipice of things getting much worse. I think this Bruen decision, the Supreme Court ruling, quite possibly will unleash so many lawsuits against so many counted-upon regulations that citizens may wake up to the equivalent of, like, no stop signs in their town anymore, except for it’ll be on gun regulation. [The Bruen decision has been called one of the court’s most significant rulings on guns in decades. It struck down New York’s concealed carry law as unconstitutional, saying it conflicted with the Second Amendment.]
What do you attribute this trend to?
As I write in my book, there was a time not that long ago, maybe about 15 to 20 years ago, when the industry understood a sort of fragile social contract needed to be maintained on something as immensely powerful as the freedom to own guns. And so the industry didn’t do certain things. It didn’t advertise in egregiously irresponsible ways. It didn’t put, you know, growth, company growth, above all other things. There were just these unspoken codes of conduct the industry knew not to violate. And those seem to have broken down. And now it’s kind of a victory at all costs. And sadly, I think there’s a lot of cost.
What do you say to people who make the argument that guns are protected by the Second Amendment and that yes, a deranged person here or there may do something bad, but is it fair to punish or penalize law-abiding gun owners with unnecessary or extra government intervention?
I am a gun owner. I hunt and shoot with my boys. I want to continue doing that. I believe and I think that I have a right to do those things. On the other hand, I do not believe that right can exist without a commensurate amount of responsibility. And that responsibility either has to be voluntary or it has to be legislated.
I don’t think universal background checks are an infringement. I just don’t buy that. I think it’s part of the responsibility of exercising this right. I don’t think strengthened red flag laws are in any way an infringement. I think that’s what we must do as responsible citizens. I don’t think that controlling irresponsible marketing is an infringement on our Second Amendment rights. In fact, I think it’s our responsibility to do it. I think there’s a small thread of truth in the position you portray, but democracies function in a sort of carefully balanced gray area. And I think our balance in the country right now is way, way off.
Are there others in the gun industry who share your view?
There were people who agreed with everything I said before the sort of radical shifts started to happen in about 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. But, you know, as with most things, when you earn a paycheck from something, you’re likely to be greatly influenced by it. And so, over time, most of the people in the industry have either converted to a true belief in the sort of radicalized Second Amendment absolutism that now I think is very dangerous, or they have just left the industry. There is only a place for complete, 100% devotion.
What caused the radicalization?
It was a combination of factors. After Columbine in 1999, the National Rifle Association in very well-publicized meetings now, thanks to sleuthing and digging by reporters at NPR, we now have tapes of the meetings where they literally said, are we going to be part of the solution here? Or maybe we can use these things to drum up hate and fear in our members? We might even be able to use them to drive membership. And they chose the latter. They perfected that system for about seven or eight years, getting their feet underneath them. They figured out it can drive politics. And then an explosion hit. That explosion was the future Black president leading in the polls in 2007. And then Barack Obama won in 2008. So you have this sort of uncapping of hate and conspiracy, much of it racially driven, that the NRA was tapping into. Prior to 2007, people in the United States never purchased more than 7 million guns in a single year. By the time Barack Obama left office, the United States was purchasing almost 17 million guns a year. And so I think it’s impossible to discount the degree to which Obama’s presidency lit this whole thing on fire.
When Trump was elected, there was what was called in the industry the “Trump Slump,” meaning since a Republican was elected, the fear of Obama was gone, and Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected. The sort of fear and conspiracy subsided, and sales stagnated for a little while because the industry and gun owners believed that the threat had passed. But with Trump, we experienced a whole new, never seen before level of fear, racism, hatred and conspiracy that culminated in 2020. In that year, you had George Floyd, COVID lockdowns, Black Lives Matter, Antifa protests and Kyle Rittenhouse. I mean, it’s the most tumultuous year any of us can remember with the most hatred and conspiracy and nastiness. None of us can remember a year like that. In that year, the United States consumers bought almost 23 million guns in a single year, more than three times as much as before Barack Obama took office.
Last year there was a rash of youth-related mass shootings. Uvalde comes to mind. The tragedy at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket comes to mind. How do race, conspiracy and these political headwinds you mention result in young people committing these massacres?
When those things happen, they’re not products of one particular event or series of events. They are the culmination of lots of turmoil in our society. And we’ve always had turmoil in our society, and every society has always had turmoil in it. What no other society has had is 425 million guns and this culture, on the right, that tells young men that to be real young men, they must purchase an AR-15 and go out and solve their problems. The industry 15 years ago would not even allow the AR-15 to be used or displayed at its own trade shows. I mean, they were locked up in a corner. You had to have military or police credentials to even go in there. Now, they’re spread around like crazy, and the marketing campaigns are so aimed at young men that in some ways, it’s not shocking that Uvalde or Buffalo or [the July 4 shooting at a parade in the Chicago suburb of] Highland Park, all three heinous crimes, all three committed with AR-15s, all by very young men. It’s not shocking to me that those happen; it’s shocking to me that they don’t happen every day.
What is more powerful in this country right now than social media advertising? And if it’s not so powerful, why do all the gun companies and the tactical gear companies maintain such polished social media accounts? Advertising is something that happens over time, and creates a perception and creates brands, and creates ways of thinking. And I think that certainly happened with the Buffalo shooter.
The Buffalo shooter wrote in his manifesto about perusing YouTube videos, social media accounts, all the places where tactical gear — which are some of the most egregiously advertised items in the firearms industry right now, bulletproof vests, helmets, gloves, all things that weren’t marketed at all 20 years ago. He studied very carefully what bulletproof vest to wear, what tactical gear to wear, he used the exact same gun that was used in Sandy Hook, the Bushmaster XM-15, the same gun that was advertised in [Remington Arms’] man card campaign that told young men: “You don’t have a man card if you don’t have one of these rifles. And you do have a man card if you do have one of them.”
Now, can you draw a direct line from that ad to those two shooters? I don’t know that you can draw a direct line, but I think you could damn sure draw an obtuse line. I mean, two young men who, obviously, I mean, come on, like, that’s not a mistake. And if advertising doesn’t matter, then why are they doing it?
What are the fixes? Are there any fixes?
What did Winston Churchill say? “Americans will eventually do the right thing.” And I think we may be in for more ugliness before we do the right thing. Some of that will be demanding that the Supreme Court not apply foolish originalist reasoning to instances like this. So part of that will be demanding that either through public pressure or through eventually, in the long game, replacing those justices with ones who don’t believe that way.
The other thing is, we’re going to have to, as a society, just rise up and demand responsibility, the same kind of responsibility that the industry that I worked in once imposed on itself.
You know, I tell the story that 15, 20 years ago, the industry named guns like the Smith & Wesson 629 or the Remington 870 because you had [industry] attorneys that knew that even the names of guns could be important. They could encourage people to do irresponsible things. And so you’d never wanted to even name things that might encourage bad things to happen. Now we have a gun called the Wilson Urban Super Sniper. I mean, what are you supposed to do with that? We now have a gun called the Ultimate Arms Warmonger. What are you supposed to do with that? We now have an AR-15 company called Rooftop Arms, as in when you don’t get what you want, you vote from the rooftops. And what happened in Highland Park? A kid got up and killed people from a rooftop. You see the old self-imposed responsibility; those old norms of behavior have been just completely trashed.
So we can, as a society, demand reinstatement of those norms. Those have nothing to do with laws. They don’t require legislation. They don’t require two-thirds of the vote in the Senate. We can demand that. And we may have to.
Justin Cooper, chief of operations at Rooftop Arms, told ProPublica the business name stems from the origins of founders and is in no way related to “voting from the rooftops,” past events or political causes, or views.
ProPublica contacted Remington Arms and Bushmaster for comment but didn’t receive a response.